Arts feature

Remembering David Storey, giant of postwar English culture

Jasper Rees remembers David Storey, giant of postwar English culture and wry teller of tales, whose newly published memoir is perhaps his most remarkable work

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

12 June 2021

9:00 AM

There is a famous story about David Storey. It is set in 1976 at the Royal Court where, for ten years, his plays had first been seen before heading away to the West End and Broadway. That same week he had won the Booker Prize with his novel Saville. With unrivalled success across fiction, theatre and cinema, Storey was a giant of postwar English culture. He was also, compared with most writers, an actual giant.This Sporting Life, his novel made into a groundbreaking film, grew out of his experience of playing rugby league for Leeds.

Unlike Saville, his new play Mother’s Day was greeted by a raspberry fanfare after Alun Armstrong dried during a speech containing 27 uses of the f-word. A night or two later, Storey was giving the demoralised cast a stirring pep talk in the Court’s bar when he noticed the presence of the very critics who had just dumped on his play.

‘I thought they were all queuing up to apologise,’ he told me when I first met him 25 years ago, ‘but then the one at the front asked me to get out of the way.’ They were queuing to get past him to see a play in the other auditorium. ‘I stepped aside and I just couldn’t resist verbally abusing them and I got carried away. I only really hit hard at Michael Billington. I was rather soft with the others. It was on the back of the heads, reproachful, like you do with schoolchildren [Storey had taught in many rugged London schools]. With Billington I hit him each time I came to a vowel. “I-di-ot”. I just remembered the first sentence of his review, which only had two words in it. “A stinker”. I knocked his glasses across the floor.’

I interviewed Storey three times, and he would revisit this tale with relish but also embarrassment. For all his Yorkshire brawn, somewhat reduced as he entered old age, he was a quiet and Eeyore-ishly wry teller of wonderful tales against himself.

One thing he never mentioned was that he had suffered for most of his life from clinical depression which, as he turned 50, drove him close to suicide and into the care of a psychiatrist. During one bout of recovery, he started writing a book which, in its final pages, he insists ‘hasn’t been an autobiography’. As a project it certainly feels more inchoate than a conventional chronicle of facts and feelings. There is no dwelling on triumphs — he wins the Booker in a sentence, and doesn’t take his reader to the ceremony. It is instead a pitiless excoriation of the self in all its pain and failure.

A Stinging Delight — he got the title from a favourite bit of Greek lyric poetry — had a long birth. Storey could dash off plays such as Home and The Changing Room in a matter of days as if taking dictation, but the books would gestate for years, sometimes decades. The second time I met him he was about to turn 65 and he had a new novel out about a 65-year-old novelist with writer’s block. It had been on the go for 12 years. His non-memoir was begun in the early 1980s, and finally submitted for publication in 2012, only for Storey to withdraw it. According to the foreword by his daughter Kate, he fretted that it was too honest. ‘Not in my lifetime,’ he concluded. His death five years later cleared the path for the publication of perhaps his most remarkable and gripping work.

The agonies he describes with such unsparing honesty have their root in the death of his eldest brother, aged six, when Storey was still in the womb. ‘Your death’ — the book is addressed to this fraternal spectre — ‘had been fed into me as primal matter, coming in not merely through the umbilical tube but almost literally through the wall of the womb itself.’ His mother could not bring herself to hug her newborn son. The only time he remembers her touch was when, finding a pair of his accidentally soiled underpants, she angrily smeared the excrement over his face and into his mouth. That is quite a memory to have to expunge. (He even starts his writing career in the lavatory, the family home’s only sanctuary.) ‘I recall looking at my face and thinking, “I shall never look at myself again.”’

In this last testament Storey does little else. Every day of his adult life he wakes to a feeling of terror that derives from unaddressed grief. He lives, he records, in ‘a hellhole of the mind’. His response was to write and paint his way out of hell, and Wakefield. But that brings in fresh waves of guilt. His beloved dad is a miner. ‘How could I paint a picture or write a poem while our father was hacking at a coalface?’ The pit would suffuse his imagination: later he sees his psychiatrist as a miner ‘searching in the dark without, it seemed, a lamp’. He fled south but, to pay his way through the Slade, commuted back north to play professional rugby and became aware of being sawn into two irreconcilable polarities. ‘I shouldn’t try and talk like us,’ a teammate counsels him. ‘It’s not your style.’

Then there is his problematic relationship with a surviving older brother who, Cain to his Abel, resents his successes and never ceases seeking to surpass him. Meanwhile Storey’s saintly wife Barbara, also from Wakefield, is steadfastly loyal — even, seemingly, when he has a blissful affair in New York. Their four children, whom he shields from his agonies, give him his reason to survive and, spurning lithium, to fight bare-knuckled with his ‘indigenous depression’. Such was his intellectual curiosity about his suffering that his own psychiatrist came to perceive him more as colleague than patient.

The paradox is that, for all his anxiety, Storey is lovely company on the page as he was in person. He offers riotous and sharp pen portraits of Lucian Freud and Ralph Richardson, and a deep consideration of his creative partnership with the director Lindsay Anderson. But the demons never retreat far. As a result the narrative is flecked with repetitions, while Storey’s prose is rife with dangling participles and botched pronouns. ‘A tall rangy Texan, I’d been drawn to his wry American humour… Ralph invited Lindsay and I to his club.’ This feels less like bad style than an identity crisis manifested in syntax. The first-person singular seeps in everywhere: ‘I suffered, therefore I was. I was, therefore I suffered.’

His admirers should be grateful that Storey toiled for so long to provide such a densely drawn map of mental illness. Quite how many admirers he still has, though, is open to question. Of his dozen novels all but This Sporting Life and Saville are out of print. His plays are too rarely performed, although this autumn there is a welcome revival of Home (1970) by Chichester Festival Theatre. In the Covid era, when mental health and physical confinement are interlocking concerns, it’s a play whose time has come again, telling of two old men who are gradually revealed to be inmates of an asylum. John Gielgud, though puzzled by it, decided to do the original production because he liked the playwright’s smile.

Storey became a psychiatric outpatient around the time his theatrical agent told him his career as a playwright was over. ‘I’m hoping that being out of fashion will become fashionable,’ he told me in 1996, two decades after winning the Booker, three after sharing the Standard’s most promising playwright award with Tom Stoppard. ‘Most playwrights’ careers only last a short while,’ he added in 2007 when In Celebration was revived in the West End. ‘One or two manage to keep going. Formative experience has always been this thing I’ve gone back to in the end, and I’ve done all I can with that.’ In that last encounter, when he was well into his seventies, Storey did admit to having written a play about a psychiatrist. ‘But nobody wanted to do it,’ he said with the morbid modesty that was his signature. ‘I think everybody thought it was too negative.’ Instead, and finally, there’s this stinging delight.

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A Stinging Delight is published by Faber.A new production of Home is at the Chichester Festival Theatre from 8 October to 6 November.

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